The Seattle International Film Festival has had a tumultuous few years, even for a cinema company during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did the nonprofit go through layoffs and cancel two years of in-person film festivals (it went virtual in 2021), but it has also gone through several executive directors — Jacqueline Dupuis, interim executive director, is its third in the last five years. This year’s festival was smaller than normal, and ended with some staff walking out over a pay dispute.

But none of those challenges stopped Tom Mara from applying for the position, which he says he approached SIFF about. Mara is most famous for his work at Seattle radio station KEXP over the past 30 years, the last 22 as executive director, taking it from a little volunteer-run college station to one of the most influential radio stations and music tastemakers in America, reaching 2 million listeners a week and many more online.

The many lives of KEXP, now a more diverse, online global phenomenon

Last year, Mara announced he’d be retiring from KEXP at the end of this month. Now, it turns out that while he’s still leaving the radio station, he’s not moving on to a life of retirement; he’s instead moving over to SIFF as its new executive director. Mara said he’d thought about taking time off and “walking the earth” but was drawn to SIFF.

“An organization that needs help is more attractive to me than an organization that’s humming along and doing just fine,” Mara said.

Mara spoke about why he took this new job — which he starts Aug. 1 — and his vision for SIFF. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


I want to start with maybe an obvious question. What’s your favorite movie, or your favorite movie you’ve seen at SIFF, or both?

Let’s see — I think my favorite movie was one I watched with my dad in a theater in Germany (where Mara grew up). That was “Raging Bull.” My father had a tradition with me and my siblings to go to a movie every Friday night.

You announced last year you were retiring at the end of this month. What made you decide to take on this new job?

Four years ago I started a conversation with my wife, Mary. I was in my mid-50s, and being at KEXP for 30 years, I said, “Well, life is short — what could the next chapter be, and when should it be?” And I thought I’d be taking a good chunk of time off, and walk the earth to discern what my next chapter would be.

But, you know, things don’t time out as you would think, and I had a conversation with Diana Knauf, the board chair at SIFF, and said, ‘If there’s any interest in talking to me about this, let me know’ and lo and behold, there was interest and I’m just tickled that I get to be its next executive director.

Some will likely see this as a Hail Mary from SIFF to stay afloat post-pandemic. Do you agree with that and, if not, what’s the general health of SIFF? How is the money situation?


I don’t think it’s a Hail Mary. It’s an example of a board applying its leadership to find an executive director that could add value and help. Absolutely SIFF and KEXP are very different, but the notions of helping put together plans to increase financial stability, to help staff grow in their roles, and get SIFF to the point where it can grow with some strategic vision — that’s what I think I can bring to SIFF.

SIFF was affected greatly because of COVID. Theaters shut down. I think I can help pull together those plans, to point in a good direction, and get SIFF back and even beyond where it was before.

SIFF came back in person this year for the first time since 2020. How did that go, to your knowledge and experience, and do you have a preference between this year’s scaled-back size or pre-pandemic longer festivals with many more films?

The experience I had was a wonderful one, both in terms of being back in the theater and also streaming a movie as well — “Everybody Hates Johan.” It was wonderful being back in the theater with others, which you can’t replicate online. But online, at the same time, there’s potential to reach more people. So I think in the future it’s really about how SIFF can play a larger role in your life, whether it’s in the theater or online.

I don’t have an answer of how long the festival should be in this coming year. But I can tell you it’s one of the important questions we’ll be discussing.

Do you have sort of pie-in-the-sky dreams for SIFF? Make it a household name like Toronto International Film Festival? Buy Cinerama?

I can share with you what my philosophy has been working in an arts organization. You ask the question, “Why grow? Why become bigger? Why a larger operating budget?” And the answer to all of those is because you reach more people and you make a difference in their lives. That’s why you grow. A grand vision where SIFF is much larger than it is today would be an outcome from our work to reach more people and have SIFF play a larger role in their life. The values that SIFF has, and its public-service mission — that’s going to be guiding us.